Translator’s Note – Justin Quinn
Bohuslav Reynek (1892–1971) was a Czech poet, artist, and translator. If anglophone readers know some Czech poetry, they will most likely connect it with the period of the Cold War, when most poems had a political subtext – sometimes real, sometimes imagined. Reynek stands apart from this. He had come to poetic maturity during the 1920s, and was deeply influenced by German Expressionism, as well as French poetry of the end of the nineteenth century, especially Francis Jammes and Paul Valéry, whom he translated.
He was also a Catholic. While much has been written on the cross fertilization of literature in the first decades of the twentieth century with Judaism and even Theosophy, we are less accustomed to Roman Catholicism. For this, we must look to French writers such as Paul Claudel, Charles Péguy, and Léon Bloy, among others. Reynek’s engagement with this intellectual current was profound, and he often adopted its apocalyptic contours in his early career.
He spent most of his life on a farm in the Czech Highlands, in the village of Petrkov, about an hour and half’s drive south-east of Prague. Through the difficulties of the Communist regime, he and his family were able to hold on to the farm (he married the French Catholic poet Suzanne Renaud, and they had two sons, Jiří and Daniel, who both died in 2014). Though cosmopolitan in his interests, engaging with French and German poetry in the original, he was always uneasy spending longer periods away from home, even when staying in his wife’s home-town of Grenoble.
His Catholic faith and his farm are the two important frames for both his life and his art. Some poets excel at showing us the complex extent of the world; others look no further than their gardens. Reynek belongs to the latter category: in his greatest poems he remains within the bounds of the farmstead in Petrkov, observing the livestock, the light, and the seasons. His Christian faith makes this space infinite. He finds no easy scriptural lessons in his experience, neither does he impose any. Indeed, on occasion his faith deepens his despair (and then vice versa). For Reynek there is no tension between the physical phenomena he records and the chasms and exaltations of the spiritual life. These are instinct with one another. No ideas but in things? Reynek might well respond: only ideas in things? What about – as another American poet put it – the heavens, the hells, the longed-for worlds? These too can be perceived in the things of this world, if only one attends carefully enough. His poems are true records of what he saw, and they do not exclude marvels.